Pause. If you’re reading this post and haven't read part 1 of the series, I would encourage you to take quick gander before reading on. In part 1, I talk through why your brain wants the wrong things and how you can make it chill.
In part 2, we’ll explore “better ways of wanting” and the science-backed habits you can put in place to help your brain experience lasting joy.
Science says a couple of things will make you truly happy
Let’s talk through them one by one, starting with some of the least obvious.
Employ your signature strengths
A signature strength is one that is widely recognized, valued by society, fulfilling, positive, and distinctive. The VIA Institute of Character has formally recognized 24 signature strengths, including:
I would encourage each & every one of you to take the character strength survey on VIA’s website to identify your top strengths. My top five are:
Love of learning
What do you do with this knowledge once you have it? You start trying to align your life with your signature strengths. Research shows that the more signature strengths you employ in your daily life, whether at work or in your hobbies or relationships, the happier and more fulfilled you will be!
My favorite tip for adding more of this in your everyday life? Plan a signature strength-themed date with your significant other. All you have to do is find out yours and their top strengths, and plan a date that involves one of each of your strengths. This article by the VIA breaks down a couple ideal activities for each signature strength.
Another idea is to assess your signature strengths and then review how many of those in the top 5-10 you’re using in your current workday. If it’s not the majority, you may consider looking into a career that better aligns with your natural talents. Studies show you’re more likely to view your career as a calling when your work aligns with your signature strengths.
Investing your time even more carefully than your money
I love the term “time affluence,” because it’s so rich in juxtaposition. Affluence is a term generally reserved for the uber wealthy, and thus, this phrase insinuates that time is a form of wealth. Research backs it up.
There is always a trade-off between time and money. More money = less time, and more time = less money. Americans are split 50/50 in terms of what they value more. What’s exciting is that the those who favor time affluence are generally happier.
Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happier Money, says this about the dichotomy:
“Money can buy happiness. People who have more tend to be happier. [But] when you feel constantly stressed, rushed, busy, like you can’t get to all of the things that you want to do, you’re much less happy. [And] the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to feel like you don’t have enough time.”
Elizabeth offers a great tip that I’ve already started acting on: Use money to alleviate the annoying points of your day. That’s how you’ll get more SMILEAGE (yes, I made that up, I am so punny) out of your money.
What’s the takeaway here? Once your basic needs are met by your income, prioritize your time over more money.
Connect socially with your loved ones & strangers alike
One half of this statement is easy to understand, and the other is extremely counterintuitive (at least to me and lots of people in psych studies). It’s a well known fact that our relationships are by and large the most important factor in our long-term happiness.
What’s little known and much more surprising is that some of the same benefits you get from chatting with your mom or your best friend can be found in talking to a stranger. In a 2014 study by Epley & Schroeder called “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude,” researchers find that:
"Talking to strangers makes us happy. Even if you are reluctant to talk to a stranger, you and the stranger get a happiness boost after talking to each other.”
As someone who takes public transit to and from work every day, I find this fascinating. I am one of the majority who prefers to get on the bus silently (with headphones in), sit down, open my book, read until my stop, get off (still silent), and never utter a word to my own damn neighbors.
And heaven forbid if someone tries to talk to me or worse, I know someone on the bus and we make eye contact and now I have to talk to them. Uhg. I just want to read my book.
But there’s the silly old miswanting mind again. Because it’s so true -- after every social exchange that I’d dreaded up until the first word, I walked away happier from the experience than I would have reading my book or listening to a podcast.
I love this quote by one of the writers of the paper, Nicholas Epley:
“Everybody has an interesting story to tell. You just have to ask them.”
Find out where you flow
Flow is defined as a mental state where you’re doing an activity you really enjoy and are fully immersed. It’s characterized by the following statements:
Challenging, but attainable
Strong, focused concentration
The activity is intrinsically rewarding
Feeling of serenity
Loss of self consciousness
Losing track of time
Loss of awareness of bodily needs (hunger, bathroom)
Complete focus on the activity itself
For some people, flow is playing basketball, or singing, or being a parent. For me, the closest thing I’ve found to flow is getting lost in a good book or writing about positive psychology.
If you’re looking for something to chase in life or in your career, chase flow. As mentioned above, some of the best signals for what will help you achieve flow are your signature strengths.
Practice a growth mindset
By now, many of us are familiar with Carol Dweck’s book on the growth mindset. In it, her basic assertion is that:
“People with a fixed mindset (those who believe that abilities are fixed) are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset (those who believe that abilities can be developed).”
An easy way to practice a growth mindset in your daily life is to lead with curiosity when you fail. For instance, consider these two common, negative events and positive reframings:
Going through a breakup → What did I learn from this? How will that help me find a better partner in the future?
Food guilt from eating too much → What factors caused me to do this? How can I manage those for next time so that I feel pleasantly full, not stuffed?
I can't stress this one enough, as it’s the piece of the positive psychology puzzle that has transformed my life.
Did you know that our mind is wandering from the present moment approximately 46% of the time? Just about the only time it’s not is -- surprise, surprise -- during sex. One scientist described mind-wandering as a “cognitive feat that comes at an emotional cost.” It’s both a blessing and curse that we’re able to ruminate on the past and plan for the future. The curse part is that we spend very little time in the present moment, enjoying the here and now.
So how do we reduce the amount of mind-wandering our brain naturally wants to do? MEDITATION. Meditation is defined as the practice of turning your attention away from distracting thoughts to one focal point, like the breath, body, sensations, or compassion.
I’ll summarize three key studies for you, because the research here is important:
Brewer et al. (2011): This study put expert meditators with over 10,000 hours of practice into an fMRI scanner while they were meditating. Researchers were looking at how your default brain network is activated during the act of meditation. What they found was that meditation significantly shuts down the default network (responsible for mind-wandering) and lights up other, more disparate parts as different connections are being made across the brain.
Holzel et al. study: This study looked at the amount of gray matter in the brain before and after a mindfulness program. It found that with just 30 minutes of meditation a day over 8 weeks was enough to build brain tissue and strengthen the brain over time. Grey matter is "known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection."
Fredrickson et al. (2008): This paper tells us that loving-kindness meditation makes you happier. It does so by increasing positive emotions, thereby increasing a given individual's personal resources from which they can draw life satisfaction.
Get enough sleep
You know this. I know this. Scientists know this. In one of the most basic, but telling studies, they compared normal folks who got 7 hours of sleep with sleep deprived folks who got 5 hours. What they found was a significant decrease in mood and positive emotions for the deprived group.
Another incredible study found that the number of physical and emotional complaints an individual has about their current situation skyrockets when they aren't sleeping enough. Incredible because THIS IS ME. I am such a whineypants when I don't sleep well, like I truly think everything about my life sucks and is hopeless. Sleep is integral to my being a good person.
For a good overview on the health & mentality effects a lack of sleep has on the brain, check out this handy infographic from HuffPost:
One of the best things I discovered for my bodily health is that exercise actually makes you happier. Not just because it helps you look banging in them jeans, but because it changes your brain chemistry. To look banging in this life!! Lame joke alert.
The best study I can quote is the one that found that just 30 minutes of exercise 3 times per week produced happiness effects better than Zoloft. Zoloft is one of the leading anti-depressant medications.
I love this finding, because it helps illustrate that some of our most powerful resources for improved health are right at our fingertips, accessible and scaleable en mass.
Be kind with your words and actions
We are happier when we use our time and money to benefit other people. This is important to remember in the daily ebb & flow of our busy lives.
Research suggests that once your income hits at about the $70K mark, or where most of your basic needs are being met (food, shelter, clothes, etc.), you don't stand to gain anymore happiness from increased income. To me, this is an important as I start think about how to become more time affluent (ie. deprioritizing certain activities), while still living a happy life.
Prioritizing acts of kindness toward others is what will bring me happiness in the long term. Fewer hours at work, more hours volunteering.
Stop prioritizing things that will make you richer or better looking or more successful in some way. Don’t stop doing them altogether, just consider how you might better use the 9th or 10th hour you would have put in at work. Maybe it’s hitting the gym and meditating. Maybe it’s taking a new class with a friend.
Instead, start prioritizing:
Your signature strengths
Time affluence/free time
Flow & growth mindset
Acts of kindness
I’m working on kindness & time affluence
I’ve been consuming positive psych content for many years now, so I’m well versed in the benefits of friends, sleep, exercise & meditation. The benefits of kindness and time affluence are relatively new to me, though.
To test these new habits, I’m focusing on:
Saying no to more things and very purposefully budgeting & spending my time (like one might with money).
Little things I can do to make the lives of others better. Whether that's helping out at work, cleaning around the house, or sending a kind text out of the blue.
Here’s my challenge to you: Pick one new scientifically-back happiness hack and try focusing on adding it to your life over the next week or two. Pay attention to your quality of life, and see if you might benefit from long-term adoption of some of these habits.